Midlands Voices: Prescribed burning plays a key role in sustaining Nebraska’s ecosystems | Columnists

Sara Simmons

Ecology is a vast topic with profound implications that affect us all globally. Sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of the impact these concepts can have on us here at the local level. Ecological interactions are at play here in our own backyard: Nebraska.

A key ecological principle is that of the organization of ecosystems into networks of interactions. Essentially, ecosystems are not as simple as they seem, and the interactions between organisms in these ecosystems have profound effects on each other. These effects can be both positive and negative. No organism is solitary, and the existence of one organism inevitably impacts other organisms within that ecosystem. For example, the abundance of certain types of plants can affect the abundance of bird and mammal species, which further affects the local ecosystem and its health.

In addition to these living components of ecosystems, non-living factors, such as fires, also play a crucial role in these networks of interactions. To illustrate this concept and its importance here at home in Nebraska, we can take a closer look at prairie ecosystems and the effects of prescribed burning.

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A key example of ecosystem interactions is prescribed burning and its effects on secondary grassland succession. Nebraskans are no strangers to prohibited burning, but prescribed and deliberate burning in the appropriate scenario is vital to grassland populations and animal species within these ecosystems. The tallgrass prairies of Nebraska represent a declining biome type and ecosystem form. These grasslands have been threatened with extinction. Threats to these ecosystems include habitat degradation due to human manipulation of the land, but also the introduction of invasive species and the growth of woody plant species.

One of the ways a grassland naturally protects itself is by allowing intermittent fires. These fires remove harmful species such as trees and invasive species, while also destroying dead plants, thereby enriching the environment with nutrients from those dead plants. With burning bans becoming more frequent due to increasing dry and windy conditions, it’s easy to lose sight of the important role they play in grassland ecosystem interactions. Increasing the number of woody trees and plants can alter the interactions of many grassland populations. Not only can this prescribed burn kill invasive and woody plants, it also promotes grazing in newly burned grassland areas, helping to prevent overgrazing in old grassland patches.

Prescribed burning works by selectively burning a patch of grassland to kill plant species that are undesirable for the health of the grassland. If these plants could continue to grow, negative grassland species interactions would begin to be observed. Mammal populations are altered as invasive and woody plant species invade grassland habitats. Mammals not normally present in traditional grasslands make a home there due to the presence of woody and invasive species. Conversely, typical native grassland mammals no longer find the suitable environment and their populations decline as the landscape changes.

For these reasons, prescribed burning plays a key role in the webs of interactions that are at play in ecosystems here in Nebraska.

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